Your Nemesis, The Short Nap

February 23, 2012 |  by  |  0-3 Months, 1 YO, 3-6 Months, 6-9 Months, 9-12 Months, naps
baby naps too short?

Update 4/14/2015: A more comprehensive and detailed post on the causes of and solutions for short naps has been published. Everything here is still true, however if you’re looking for even more details on strategies to dramatically lengthen your child’s naps, check out the new short nap post.

A short nap is generally anything between 10-45 minutes. Sometimes short naps sneak in during car trips or while nursing or taking a bottle. Sometimes a temporary sleep regression, ear infection, or ferocious bout of teething will result in short naps. But for some of you, short naps are simply a constant part of life. If so, you’re probably pretty keen to help your baby take longer naps because…

Short Naps Suck

There are many reasons why short naps suck but the big three are:

  • You’ll spend longer putting baby to sleep than your baby actually sleeps.
  • You never get break.
  • Babies who take consistently short naps are generally unhappy babies.

Really, neither you nor your baby is particularly happy about short naps.

The Short Nap Myth

You can’t make your newborn baby nap longer. Some babies will start taking longer naps earlier than others. There is always some Mom in the new baby playgroup that will tell you that their baby takes 3 hour naps all day long because of the magical book they read. Nope. Their baby is taking long naps because she is biologically ready to do so.

Want Long Naps?

Newborn babies will often take itty-bitty cat naps all day long until they consolidate their naps into longer chunkier naps. Nap consolidation can happen anytime between 6 weeks and 6 months. If you are the parent of a baby under 6 months you are probably pretty keen to have your baby consolidate naps. Parenting a cat napper can be exhausting and frustrating.

Sleep consolidation also reflects the maturation of intrinsic bioregulatory processes.

Unfortunately you can’t force a short-napper into taking longer naps. There are internal processes within your baby that need to develop and you can’t make it happen. Generally people refer to this as your baby’s circadian rhythm although it’s actually rather complex and involves multiple parts of the brain. You don’t need to know the specifics although you can impress your friends by dropping this quote (from the NIH article).

Just know that you can’t MAKE it happen and if yours is the last baby on the block taking short crappy naps, it’s not necessarily because you are failing as a parent, you have a bad baby, or because of that one glass of white wine you had when you were pregnant.

Short Naps For All Eternity?

You can, of course, delay nap consolidation by keeping your baby awake too long resulting in them becoming OVERtired. Overtired babies generally take short naps. If your baby is less than 6 months old and you’re doing everything you can to keep your baby from being awake too long, you’re providing lots of age-appropriate soothing, etc. and your baby STILL takes short naps, then it just means she isn’t ready to take longer naps yet. It’ll come.

However if your baby is older than 6 months and still taking short naps then you may have a problem.

  • The #1 reason babies over 6 months are taking short naps is that they’re not falling asleep on their own yet.
  • The #2 most common reason (which is actually related) is that you’re still using pacifiers and/or bottles at bedtime.
  • And #1 & #2 are almost always compounded by…
  • Keeping baby awake too long.
  • Lack of consistency (where they sleep, bedtime/nap routines, etc.).
  • Chronic sleep deprivation (tired babies are generally crappy nappers).

If you’re still rocking/nursing/bouncing them fully to sleep, or putting them to sleep with a pacifier or bottle, I can pretty much guarantee that they’ll take short naps forever. Helping your baby learn to fall asleep without you/bottle/pacifier is NOT EASY. Neither is getting your kid out of diapers, dealing with bullies, or having the condom talk. And yet these are all things you’ll have to do.

Similarly you are no longer the parent of a newborn who could easily sleep whenever and wherever it suited. As the parent of a regulation-sized baby it’s time to get serious about making sure you are home at nap time, using consistent routines when it’s time for sleep, and having your baby sleep in the same place round the clock.

How Long Is a Long Nap?

A long nap is generally around 1-1.5 hours although some lucky moms have been blessed with 3 hour nappers. You can identify these parents because of their healthy glow. And the fact that they’re about to get their first novel published.

So good luck getting your short napper to take long naps. Feel free to share how and when you achieved nap nirvana!

{photo credit: yoshimov}

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  1. Hi mothers of catnappers! I have just taken a trip down memory lane to Feb 2013 when I posted here about my then 9 wk old catnapper. I just went back and read my post (and remembered my desperation!) and felt compelled to update about my then newborn who is now 2! She is a fantastic sleeper and has bed since 6 mths. We’ve never had 2 long naps a day (so didn’t have to deal with the dropping of a nap dilemma) but she has 1.5-2.5 hr naps everyday! Also fantastic at night. There is hope! I just remember feeling so anxious in that newborn catnapping period that she’d NEVER sleep well…when really, she just needed to grow a bit! I’m back here again as I now have a 6 wo catnapper…. But that’s another story!! Best of luck…it does get better :-)

    • Hi lucy! I have a four month old who sleeps for 30 minutes only in daytime. I am forever trying to put him back to sleep or frequently let him sleep on me or in my lap so that we both get some rest. But I worry I might be giving him wrong habit which might prevent him from from consolidating sleep later. Did u just let ur baby take short naps or tried to extend them and ur lo extended them at 6 mths?

      • Maybe there is an interim step between “forever short naps” and “wait till 6 months” – are you maximizing the soothing? Most 4 month olds still need a ton of soothing to take a long-ish nap so swaddling, white noise, and maybe the swing might be helpful. Have you seen this post (see link below)?
        Alexis Dubief recently posted..The Monumental Guide to Short Naps AKA Everything You Need to Know to Vanquish Crap NapsMy Profile

        • Hi! Congratulations on your website, it’s great!
          My 3 month old baby girl sleeps in her crib, no swadling, white noise or pacifier for 6-7 hours a night but takes 24min naps… Should I just wait until she is older, will she be able to sleep longer? She is breastfed and nurses every two hours, falling asleep while nursing many times…
          My 4 year old son started waking up every 45 minutes during the night when he was 4 months old and we did CIO with wonderful results when he was almost 7 months and I’m afraid we’ll go down the same path now…

  2. This website is a godsend! Thank you Alexis for your helpful tips because my terrible napper just went down for a nap (in our new swing) and has been asleep for 4 hours.

    My question is this: Should I wake a sleeping baby from an extra long daytime/late afternoon nap?

    The sleep deprived part of me is screaming the word “Nooooo!!” very loudly, but the still functioning part of my brain is whispering the warning, “But he won’t sleep tonight if you don’t wake him!”

    I would appreciate your sage advice on this issue.

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